April 15, 2013

History Poems

by M. V. Montgomery

The First Emperor Speaks
Qin Shihuangdi, 259-210 BCE

I have crossed into a world of stone, where my palace rises,
guarded by generals, archers, and infantrymen. In this place,
there can be no death or desertion. My followers are legion.
I command charioteers, armored cavalry, and saddled horses.
Advisors and scribes stand by to receive my instructions.

Let musicians play their tunes while royal birds step and bob
their necks. Let a strongman astound all with feats of strength.
Let acrobats balance balls while standing on one leg. If clay
summons no more life than this, then mix in the bones of live
followers. Their spirits dare not stray without my authority.

A model of my empire has been built with quicksilver rivers
flowing past mountain palaces to the Yellow and Yangtse,
then on to the ocean. Here I preside, beneath a vault of stars,
over all the known universe. My reign has not been disturbed.

Leonardo at Play

According to Vasari, there never was any mystery to Mona Lisa’s smile.
Leonardo had brought in jesters and musicians to amuse Giocondo’s wife
as she sat: her lips have the curl of a woman trying to keep a distinguished
countenance, and not quite succeeding. Perhaps she also laughed inwardly
at this Florentine genius who could not himself sit still, a super-strong child
who rarely finished what he started. Who felt so deeply that sentient beings
should not be caged he bought birds in the marketplace just to release them,
or shaped balloon animals out of soft wax and blew life into them himself,
laughing at each nascent creation. Father of conspiracies? Secret societies?
While he loved nothing so much as diagrams and intricate plans, it is hard
to imagine enough patience for the follow-through. Consider, this man
who created The Last Supper once bought intestines from a butcher and
inflated them with a bellows until they filled a whole room, shocking those
who came for a look at divine artistry with the sight of outrageous anatomy.

for Nardi T.


Named for a daughter of the North Wind, Boreas,
she was descended of incestuous marriages
for four generations, a Macedonian princess
who ruled the Greek capitol of Alexandria.

Her great-great descendant Ptolemy Philadelphus
is described by Theocritus as light skinned,
blue eyed, and fair. Shakespeare may have
been right, after all, to describe her as tawny.

Her image, recently found on a coin, might belie
the myth of a great beauty—but that, my friend,
is in the eye of the beholder.


More apparent today are her considerable
intellectual gifts. Schooled from an early age
to assume the throne, she is said to have
mastered nine languages.

She accomplished what more powerful rulers
could not, holding the Roman empire at bay.
And did so cunningly, through staged pageants,
masquerading first as Isis, later as Venus.

She knew others believed in a show of faith
and a queen need not care about effrontery.
When Caesar fell, she recast him as Osiris,
exchanging her role of god for consort.


Roman poets and chroniclers who came later
―Lucan, Josephus, Plutarch, Suetonius—
let us call them all out. Males, all driven
by lust, even at a hundred years’ remove.

They could not see past the Great Men of history
to a woman who was emperor to their emperor.
Whose only surviving words, Let it be done,
might have been all she ever needed to say.

La Mallebarbe
July 1596

She was an unwilling Scheherazade, a sixty-year old woman who for years earned
nothing but the scorn of her neighbors. Unable to live in exile either, she decided
to trust enough in the goodness of human nature to return to the village of Charmes.
That was unwise. Under threat of torture, she began to tell stories about causing
the deaths of cows and horses of villagers who had disliked her or refused her alms.
Her interrogators developed a taste for more of the same, perhaps secretly hoped
she might be holding back. So they threatened her again, and she readily confessed
to other crimes, such as poisoning a man who had called her an old bigot and a witch.
Only once did she tire and falter, perhaps temporarily depleted of her stock of folktales.
But after being “gently” racked, she found words again. This time her tales of powers
extended far beyond common knowledge, far beyond anything she could ever have
imagined of herself. She told of transformations into cat-form, of spells to raise fogs
or destructive storms, of evil commands spoken by crows, of secrets heard in the wind.
They wore her down further until she had confessed to dozens more unsolved crimes,
named “accomplices,” and provided testimony of Devil-powers that would serve as
a template for the trials to come. In some stories, Barbe stood up to her Dark Master
and tried to persuade Him to spare the crops, or her fellow poor (she was a day laborer),
but He would not listen and continued to coerce her. Her accusers were indifferent
to such motives. After a fortnight of increasingly fabulous confessions that only served
to reconfirm their beliefs in maleficium, they paid to her the only respect they could
to a convincing foe: strangulation at the stake, death before final obliteration in flames.

Death’s Head

There is nothing to unsettle the gentry
in a Victorian death’s head. These are like
Raphael’s cherubim, heads resting on wings.
Eyes rolled heavenward, as if too enthralled
to attend to a plaintive call.

The eighteenth century death’s head is asleep
in the meadow, dreaming of Elysian fields.
Eyes shut in eternal rest. But neutered-
looking, sans flowing locks, as if to say
All are anonymous in death.
As we turn the historical page, cheeks grow
more sallow, and eyes are reduced to sockets.
No wings, just crossed bones. Death is death,
and we are solemnly shown how Each of us
faces that judgment alone.

And what a rogue is this? Ho-ho!—gnashing
a femur in its teeth like Dante’s Ugolino.
No more than a vacant skull, a study in crude,
the Puritan death’s head stood as a warning:
Death is for all but the few.


After the papers fell like soft petals in the bower where Keats
sat for hours, making notes, his friend Charles Armitage Brown
found the scraps. The poet smiled, giving Charles permission
to edit the poem however he wished. He was done with it—
but the world of the Ode would never quite finish with him.
In his mind, he could still hear the sound of the songbird’s call
from various perches; and the smell of the plum tree, blended
in his imagination with the scent of violets under fallen leaves,
was so pungent that it slugged him like a narcotic. He had,
in any case, become drunk on a single wished-for sip of wine.
The power of that suggestion still left a tart taste on his lips.
He had visited with death, too, and death promised to return.
But the conversation that summer morning had left him entirely
without fear—only in a peaceful daze, relaxed to the last muscle.

Yellow House
December 23-24, 1888

It’s now alleged that it was after wounding his friend
that Gauguin fled to the South Seas, sending his ego
on long safari into the primitive. He might have felt
all was tit for tat, however: the Dutch chatterbox
had talked his ear off with plans for a quasi-religious
community at Arles. Vincent was quite boyish in his
affection, which it was not his nature to suppress.
He planned meals and bonding rituals, even wished
to share secret symbols such as the fish (ictus).

These attentions soon become intolerable to Gauguin.
He had left wife and family in search of adventure
and didn’t care to babysit this lonely soul indefinitely.
Worse, he couldn’t seem to shut him up. He had,
it’s said, a streak of cruelty, and freely took advantage
of the other’s vulnerability, often threatening to leave,
sometimes wickedly brandishing fencing foils in the air
above van Gogh’s head. Vincent had a deathly fear
of the weapons, calling them engines of war.

He was right: ictus, the catchword of their partnership,
was also a brisk French fighting salvo. Intentionally
or not, during that one fateful argument (which spilled
into Christmas Eve), Gauguin appears to have scored
a hit. Characteristically, his initial relief at his friend’s
silence would turn to envy. He perceived that the story
of self-mutilation served to diminish his own reputation
as a swordsman. The murderer took flight, he wrote,
to try to glorify himself in retreat. Then, in a sketch,
he drew a small ear inscribed with that word again: ictus.

Vincent would never see it. Two years later, removed
from the Yellow House by his brother Theo, he was dead
by his own hand, his dream of an ideal artists’ community
thoroughly routed.

* * *

M.V. Montgomery is an Atlanta professor and the author of nine books. His most recent collections of poems are What We Did With Old Moons (2012) and The Island of Charles Foster Kane (2013). Visit his blog at: http://mvmontgomery.wordpress.com/

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?
My dream journal is my best source, but I also take notes on what I read and what interests me.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?
Since I'm an English and film professor, I stay in touch with the literary canon, with a special focus on world lit and cinema history. Paradoxically, it's when I'm overworked grading papers, falling behind on household work, commuting, or left with no time to spare that my mind becomes inconveniently flooded with ideas. I tend to write them down in short bursts; and then, over the winter and summer breaks, try to expand on the crib notes and create. Or I might decide to discard them in the name of inventing something new.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction piece?
It has to be honest, and because of its power to perpetuate myth or spawn revisionist myths, sure of itself (i.e., well researched).

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
It’s probably an age thing for me (I'm fifty-one), but these days when I read for entertainment, I often feel I'm wasting my time if I'm not learning something too. I will read most anything from pulp to Proust, but if a writer like Matthew Pearl or Caleb Carr teaches me a little at the same time, it can help me to fill in some blanks in my memory.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
I'm not in the historical fiction encampment often, but when I am, can see the danger of a writer going about the business too schematically. History has to try to adhere to the fact, but "everything is the proper stuff of fiction," as Virginia Woolf said, and so when starting out, a creative writer still has to let the atoms "fall upon the mind" where they may. That means writing it out first, then worrying about editing/separating out what isn't "fact" later.